Cooking with melon: start with the fragrance

June 16, 2020


A photo of galia melon, a great cooking melon.
Galia melon is a great cooking melon. Photos: Bill St. John for UCHealth.

When cooking with melon, stop thumping and start sniffing.

A healthy full-on palm-twunk may tell you something about that watermelon you’re eyeing, but a simple look at its skin is a better bet. And feeling up a cantaloupe is OK, but not as good a sign as giving it a good sniff.

Using your senses of sight and smell when shopping for melons gives you more information (and is better for the melon and its next customer) than the inherited “wisdom” of the twack.

On a watermelon, for example, see if it sports a golden or gold-white spot. That’s where it lay on the ground. If the spot is still merely blazingly white (or worse, if there’s no spot at all), that’s a sign that the melon was picked too early. It should feel heavy in the hand, of course, full of juicy water. But the spot is telltale.

Crenshaw melon, a great cooking melon
Crenshaw melon is another great cooking melon.

And likewise for many other melons, such as the very familiar cantaloupe and honeydew. That is, don’t feel for “give”; that may bruise the melon more than do anything helpful for your kitchen.

Better to give either or both the stem and blossom end a good sniff. Plus, it’s such a beautiful sensory experience, why pass it up? If the melon gives off its perfume, it’s ripe, whether it feels soft to the touch or not. (Some melons remain firm even when ready-to-eat.)

In general, melons are fruits that do not ripen much after being picked, unlike, say, bananas or pears. And anything truly awful about the melon (a bruised spot, mushy skin, or scarring) is quite apparent to the eye.

A raft of different melons is available nowadays, well beyond the tried-and-true cantaloupe or honeydew. Their names, as well as their tastes, are exotic: Casaba, Galia, Hami, even Lemon Drop and Santa Claus (this latter because it is on offer at some grocers all the way into wintertime).

And melon meat can make the rounds in the kitchen well beyond its place in fruit cups, salads, or as the spine of a prosciutto-wrapped appetizer.

Ever tried roasted melon? Truly heaven on the tongue and a delicious topping for a bowl of yogurt, cereal (hot or cold), or ice cream: Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss large pieces of skinned, seeded, just-ripe melon in 2-3 tablespoons brown sugar, and roast for 20-25 minutes until the melon pieces begin to caramelize at their edges. (Using larger pieces, you can do something similar on the grill.)

Casaba is a great cooking melon.
When cooking with melon, try a Casaba melon.

And here’s how to slice up those pesky melons, round as they generally are and given to rolling around the cutting board. Cut off both ends just a bit, making flat surfaces at both poles. Then, stood on one flat end to steady it, slice down from the opposite pole, following your melon’s shape, removing its pelt along the line that you’ll easily see between its ripe colored flesh and the whitish “pith.”

Of course, melon balls and chunks make for refreshing salads or toppings for greens, especially with sweet-sour dressings. And no disputing their popularity in smoothies, lassi drinks, or in summer soups.

But melon is also a fun sub for tomato in pico de gallo (or as a base for many another salsa for grilled fish, chicken or pork); as a foil to raw fish poke cubes; as the starter for a range of colorful aguas frescas; as a frozen confection, either alone or in a mix with cream; and served with certain salty cheeses such as feta or chèvre.

Other great recipes and cooking tips from Bill St. John.

The inner section of the rinds, shorn of the outer skin, can be pickled or preserved. And keep in mind that the two herbs that marry perfectly with most any type of sweet melon are mint and basil. Use with abandon.

Today’s recipe is from the prolific Mark Bittman and first appeared in the New York Times Cooking section.

Broiled Melon with Balsamic

Serves 4.


1 cantaloupe or honeydew melon, cut into 1-inch-thick slices, rinds and seeds removed

4 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped pine nuts

Black pepper

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar


Turn on the broiler; heat should be medium-high and rack no closer than 4 inches from heat source. Brush melon all over with oil and put on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil until beginning to color, 3-8 minutes depending on your broiler.

Turn melon carefully (or skip it if the melon seems too tender to turn), sprinkle with salt. Broil until melon is fully tender, another 2 or 3 minutes; sprinkle with nuts and pass under broiler again until pieces just begin to toast, no more than 1 minute. Sprinkle with lots of black pepper and drizzle with balsamic. Serve warm or at room temperature.

You may reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.